Preparing to Celebrate ChristmasFriday, September 22 2006
Next to the annual celebration of Easter, the memorial of Christ’s birth is most cherished by Christians throughout the world. The feast of Christmas celebrates the gift of God’s love revealed in the great mystery of the Incarnation: God’s eternal Word taking human flesh and dwelling among us.
A wonderful array of cultural and family customs leads us to the Christmas feast and gives shape to our annual celebration. Advent wreaths and Jesse trees, collections of food and gifts for the poor, the sending of Christmas cards and letters, and the making or purchasing of special gifts for loved ones mark our Advent days of preparation. During the twelve days of Christmas, families gather around lighted trees with sparkling ornaments to exchange gifts. Family and friends come together to share stories and to partake of the many special foods lovingly prepared for this festival. As the Christmas season unfolds we find time for rest and recreation with one another. In all of these ways, we strengthen the bonds that knit us together as people in whom God has chosen to dwell.
In 270, the Roman emperor Aurelian established December 25 as the feast of the unconquered sun. This feast, which occurred at the time of the winter solstice, was adopted by the Christian community following the Council of Nicea (325) and given a new meaning. Instead of celebrating the birth of the unconquered sun, they celebrated the mystery of the Incarnation: the birth of Christ who is the “light that shines in the darkness” (John 1.5).
Mass During the Day
Early on, the Christian community decided that the best way to mark the birth of Christ was with the celebration of the Eucharist. In fact, by the late sixth century a series of three eucharistic celebrations took place in Rome at Christmas. Our earliest sources tell us that the first of these Christmas Masses was celebrated at the newly constructed basilica of St. Peter on the Vatican Hill at the usual morning hour, around 9:00 a.m. The scripture texts assigned for this liturgy were Isaiah 52.6-10, Hebrews 1.1-12, and John 1.1-14. These same readings are proclaimed today at the Mass During the Day.
Mass During the Night
Following the construction of the Roman basilica of St. Mary Major (c. 440) and the addition of a side chapel corresponding to the Cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem, there developed a vigil at the basilica in the evening before the feast. A nighttime celebration of the Eucharist concluded the vigil. During the vigil, Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ was proclaimed (Matthew 1.18-21). This text, expanded to include the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1.1-25), is presently used in the Vigil Mass of Christmas. The Eucharist during the night eventually developed into the Mass at Midnight in Rome. The epistle reading already in use in Bethlehem (Titus 2.11-14) was incorporated into this celebration together with Luke 2.18-20. Later, when the Mass at Dawn developed, this gospel passage was replaced with the familiar account of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2.1-14.
Over the years, the Mass During the Night has enjoyed great popularity. The dramatic description of the events surrounding the birth of Christ in the gospel of this Mass seems to appeal to people’s imagination more than John’s proclamation of the mystery of the Word made flesh proclaimed at the Mass During the Day. In addition, the darkness of the midnight celebration draws people to the light and darkness motifs of the feast. In the opening prayer of the Mass we pray: “Father, you make this holy night radiant with the splendour of Jesus Christ our light. We welcome him as Lord, the true light of the world.”
Mass at Dawn
In the late sixth century, the Byzantine ambassadors living in Rome celebrated the commemoration of St. Anastasia on December 25 at the church which bears her name. In deference to the ambassadors, the pope began to celebrate the Eucharist there in the early morning between the nighttime Mass at St. Mary Major and the daytime Mass at St. Peter’s. The celebration in honour of St. Anastasia soon gave way to the celebration of Christ’s birth.
The epistle for the Mass at Dawn was chosen because of its identification with the Byzantine feast of Epiphany: “when the goodness and loving kindness of our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not by any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.” (Titus 3.4-7) The Gospel (Luke 2.15-20) used in Bethlehem the day before Epiphany at the Place of the Shepherds was chosen for the Mass at Dawn. Both readings are still heard today at this Mass.
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas each year, our thoughts often turn to family traditions. In many ways Christmas is a “traditional” feast. There are traditional decorations, songs, foods, and family rituals. However, at the very heart of the Church’s tradition is the celebration of the Christmas Eucharist. All of our other traditions evolve around this central Christmas celebration. They prepare or lead us to the Christmas Mass; they flow from our celebration of the Christmas Mass.
At this moment in time we are facing a number of significant challenges which are hindering our Catholic Christmas tradition. Changing cultural patterns, pastoral circumstances, the diversity of the Christmas assembly, and a renewed awareness of the requirements of good liturgical celebration invite us to consider ways of maintaining our tradition of keeping the Eucharist at the heart of our Christmas celebration.
Shifting Cultural Patterns
In recent years there has developed a trend to anticipate the liturgical celebration of Christmas so that family activities may take precedence on December 25. Pastors are being urged to provide multiple Masses early on Christmas Eve for the convenience of their parishioners. Parents with very young children sometimes feel it is better to celebrate the Eucharist on Christmas Eve so they can spend some quality time opening gifts with their children in the early morning hours of Christmas Day. These families also desire to celebrate the Eucharist early on Christmas Eve so that the children can get to bed early. Many who must work late in the day on December 24 like to celebrate the Eucharist on Christmas Eve so they are free on Christmas morning to prepare their Christmas dinner or to travel out of town to be with family and friends. An increasing number of the elderly likewise desire to celebrate the Eucharist at an early evening hour on December 24. Some feel it is dangerous to go out at midnight, particularly in inner city neighbourhoods. Others, because of failing health, find it difficult to get to church in the morning.
Changing Pastoral Circumstances
A second challenge we face today is the large number of people who wish to celebrate with us on this occasion and the declining number of priests available to preside at the Christmas Masses. In some communities there is no priest available to celebrate the Eucharist at Christmas. In many parishes it is becoming impossible for one priest to celebrate the number of Masses needed to accommodate those who wish to celebrate the Eucharist at Christmas. In addition, when Christmas is celebrated on Monday (as in 2000) some priests in urban areas may be required to celebrate the Eucharist as many as ten times in a 48 hour period (from Saturday evening to Christmas afternoon). This can be an overwhelming burden for priests.
A Diverse Assembly
Christmas Masses attract large numbers of people from diverse backgrounds who bring with them a variety of faith experiences. Among those who celebrate with the Church at Christmas are faithful parishioners, their relatives and friends, those who are irregular in their participation in the liturgical life of the Church, and complete strangers. It is important that all are made to feel welcome so that, as God’s people, they will be united in the prayer of the Church and give thanks and praise for the salvation offered to them in Christ. The diverse assembly which gathers to celebrate the Eucharist at Christmas places far greater demands on pastors and other liturgical ministers than the community that regularly gathers for the Sunday Eucharist.
Good Liturgical Celebration
In order to facilitate the assembly’s full, conscious and active participation at all the many Christmas Masses, much planning and preparation is required. The arrangement of a festive and hospitable environment with adequate seating for the many people who will participate in the Christmas Masses requires careful thought and much hard work. Choirs and other musicians often need to rehearse for months in order to lead everyone in song that is both familiar and inspiring. Ministers of the word and those charged with preaching must take special care to proclaim the scriptures in such a way that all find nourishment at the table of God’s word. Additional ushers, eucharistic ministers, readers, musicians, and servers need to be engaged in order for the many Masses to be good liturgical celebrations.
Ever since the feast of Christmas was established, we have celebrated the Birth of Christ each year with the Eucharist. The Christmas Mass continues to be the principal way for us to express our joy and gratitude for the mystery of the Incarnation. Today’s changing cultural patterns, pastoral circumstances and the requirements of ensuring good liturgical celebrations at Christmas challenge us to be creative in finding ways to maintain our Christmas tradition. Thoughtful reflection on our rich liturgical tradition surrounding the feast of Christmas and the customs which it has inspired will enable us to find such creative ways to keep our Christmas eucharistic tradition alive. Now is a fitting time for pastors, pastoral councils, liturgy committees, families, and individuals – all of us – to ask, “How can we plan and prepare to keep the Eucharist at the heart of our Christmas celebration this year?”
Copyright © 2000 Concacan Inc., 2000. All rights reserved.
This document has been prepared by the National Liturgy Office of the English-Sector Episcopal Commission on Liturgy. It was originally prepared as a six-page pamphlet in WordPerfect format.